Oil and gas development has occurred over a wide range of terrain in western North Dakota. Roads, wells and support structures have sprung up in a significant amount of wildlife habitat containing species such as bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelope and mule deer.
In an effort to educate, inform, assess impacts to wildlife by energy development and develop future management practices, a Director's Energy Task Force has been formed within the North Dakota Game and Fish Department.
"We are look for ways we can reduce impacts to wildlife and wildlife habitat," said Greg Link, NDG&F Conservation and Communication Division chief. "We can make recommendations on habitat management. These are voluntary, not mandated. Hopefully companies will abide by them."
The issue is a difficult one and growing daily in the ever-changing oil patch. According to information supplied by Game and Fish, 35,000 new wells are projected to be drilled over the next 15 years. The production phase of oil and gas development could extend over 40 years.
"It is going to last a long time. We've got a big job," acknowledged Link.
One of the first steps in the process toward lessening the impact of oil development on wildlife habitat was identifying areas considered of critical importance. According to Link, oil companies wanted to know where the greatest areas of concern were located. NDG&F responded by creating a series of maps identifying critical habit areas and supplying them to the N.D. Department of Mineral Resources and N.D. Industrial Commission.
"We started meeting with individual oil companies," said Link. "We want them to overlay our maps with their strategies and possibly avoid some important areas for bighorns and other species. There's a different caliber of oil companies. Some leaders are out there doing things right and others not so much."
Although some landowners welcomed learning methods to protect resources such as woody draws, native grass and water areas; adoption of methods to minimize the impact of energy development on private land is voluntary.
Key species of concern have been identified as mule deer, sharptail grouse, sage grouse, pronghorn antelope, golden eagles, piping plovers and least terns. Energy developing has been occurring rapidly in areas known to contain those species. In reaction, NDG&F proposed a five-year study of impact on mule deer to begin in 2013. The first phase of a sharp-tailed grouse study has also been completed.
However, with much of western North Dakota already developed by energy exploration and with much more activity projected, studies will have a difficult time keeping up with progress in the oil fields.
"It's not just the quality of the habitat," explained Link. "It's also a quality of life thing. The Badlands used to represent remoteness, wildness and a lack of traffic. Now you are not getting that, you are finding it."
Data shows that oil wells being drilled in the Bakken Formation require 20 million to 30 million gallons of water a day, sometimes as many as 2,000 truck trips for the first 45 days of a working well. That amounts to a considerable amount of traffic in many areas that used to be considered among the most remote and pristine in North Dakota.
"We're just dealing with one phase of it right now, the really chaotic first phase," said Link. "As technology comes on it may develop in a different way. That's the hard part, constantly changing for the next 40 years. We don't know, the companies don't know, about secondary recovery when production wanes."
Secondary recovery would be oil companies drilling additional holes to recover oil and gas not recovered from a particular location during initial drilling. While secondary drilling may be years away, a new method of drilling is just beginning superpads. Superpads are designed to drill several wells from a single location, thereby lessening the amount of total drilling pads in a given area.
"Superpads are better, but at the same time that's a lot of activity coming down one road. It remains to be seen how that works. They'll be coming on a lot in the near future," said Link.
NDG&F hopes to learn more about the impact of energy development on wildlife and wildlife habitat in the coming years but, in the short term, the effects of energy development are readily visible. Significant oil activity is contributing to a changing landscape.
"These are challenging times," said Link. "There is a general loss of native prairie, increased commodity prices, land conversion, CRP is coming out and there's more agricultural drainage than ever before. It is kind of taking it's toll across the state."